Fifteen Questions with Wynton Marsalis

FM interviews jazz legend Wynton Marsalis

1. Fifteen Minutes: You lead a jazz band but you don’t conduct – what does leadership mean if it comes from the fourth trumpet?

Wynton Marsalis: In a jazz band, the drummer conducts. A leader must embody a spirit. The leader embodies the spirit, and the musicians choose to follow it. That’s how it goes ... but I rehearse the band, you know what I mean? That’s how I lead. There’s a hierarchy, a check down system built on mutual respect and understanding. My band has chosen to accept my leadership.

2. FM: In your lecture, you associated generations with specific musical and dance styles. Which genre of music will speak for my generation?

WM: There is the ignorance, the objectification of women. But there’s something other than that, too. I don’t know what it is. Every generation is defined by something. I have kids your age, we talk about cultural objectives and music. When we speak about it, they say they notice mass crossover. My son tells me that Lil’ Wayne is making a rock album; Rihanna is trying to appeal to the middle ground. They are all just trying to make big money.

3. FM: Do you dance? What are your favorite moves?

WM: I’m not a good dancer. I’m more of the “second-line” type. But I grew up with the dog, the freak, the worm. Remember the worm?

(WM orders Tabasco for his omelet)

FM: Good, you know how to eat an omelet.

WM: It’s a sign of civilization. Tabasco is a sure sign of civilization.

4. FM: How important is it for musicians to know the roots of jazz in America?

WM: It depends on what their aspirations are. It’s like knowing things about someone you are going to marry. If you are going to marry someone, you better know things about them. You better be serious about them. If you are serious about music, know its history.

5. FM: What are your favorite moments in music? Are they the most tender? The most intense? The most frenetic?

WM: If I can understand the music, I like all aspects of it. Music that’s about the repetition gets you with the repetition. Other music has waves, splashes. Every group has a different way of listening to music. When I attend South Asian concerts, I don’t understand the music. The audience will go, “oooh” about something, and I’ll be like, “huh?”

6. FM: How can people with a limited background in jazz best expose themselves to it?

WM: Just listen. Find a thing that you like. Start with a list of people who are great and listen for something you like. I have an idea about this. If an artist was born in 1940, listen to the music they made when they were 25 years old. Everyone has a sweet spot in their musical career .... If they were born in 1930, listen to their music when they are 30. If they were born in 1920, listen to the music from when they were 30. If they were born in 1910, listen to the music they made between 25 and 40. If they were born in 1900, technology hurts us, keeps us from hearing their early stuff, so listen to the music from when they were 45 to 55.